Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Though geography conspires against us

At the memorial service for my father, held about a week and a half ago in the middle of the country, some of my parents' closest friends flew in from far afield — New England, D.C., the Bay Area, the Pacific Northwest — some of them to speak at the service and some just to attend. One of the speakers said in his remarks that whenever he and his wife met up with my parents over the more than three and a half decades they have known each other, it was like picking up a conversation that had only left off the day before, instead of the three or five or thirteen years since they had last seen each other.

Another friend, H, could not attend the service but sent a touching testimonial. H became a friend of my father's in high school, on Long Island. The last time they saw each other was when H, who struggled for years to make a living as an actor in New York, came out to the Midwest in a touring show. This was when I was in high school, and I remember having lunch with them. I don't remember much about the conversation, or even really about H himself, but I do remember the meeting as seeming to possess a gravity of emotion that somehow pulled a little on my life, the way the pull of a massive object can curve the path of a flying object or even a beam of light. I was also, being a teenager, stunned by the fact that my father had a friend with a romantic profession like being a real actor!

H remembers the visit this way:
We went to the Museum to see a Thomas Hart Benton retrospective, and ended up sitting the entire afternoon in the museum cafeteria, letting our conversation play over every topic from our personal lives to the events of the day. He was always a conversationalist worth a trip across the country. It remains a day that anchors my thoughts.

The internet can give us a sense of being connected to people across great distances. Certainly, my father stayed in touch with his old friends, and us children as well, on a far more regular basis once email had permeated professional and academic life in the late 90s.

But the myth of the internet is the myth of weightlessness, that somehow when we get online we transcend our physical bodies, our frailties and passions and needs. The myth of internet weightlessness is what fooled so many people into thinking the late 90s were a "New Economy," where everyone would get rich from information technology because the internet economy was not subject to the physical realities of paying people to make things and move things and that "the economy" was somehow now divorced from the way we procure the physical things we need to feed and house and clothe and enjoy ourselves. Of course, the "New Economy" turned out to be just a classic speculative bubble, and under the cover of this illusion the making of things was moved from that factory north of town to southeast Asia, from paying your neighbor's mortgage to handing a few coins at the end of the day to desperate, starving young women.

It is now a truism that the internet is a crucial tool for organizing in the global economy, but we underestimate the physical at our own peril. No interactive technology can convince you of the physical repercussions of the "weightless economy" quite as well as a woman from a factory in Bangladesh describing in person the maladies wracking her body and the bodies of her children because she could afford to feed her family nothing but a scant daily portion of rice. And no emailed message of solidarity can build trust like a handshake, or face-to-face discussions awkward because of translation but ringing true in the language of bodies.

We stayed around for a couple of days after the service. The night before we left, I was talking with my mom about her and my father's relationships with the folks who had come to the service. She said, "You don't meet too many people in this world who you just click with. When you do, you've got to hold on to them."

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